by Summer Rand

When you think of English classes, the last thing that comes to mind is Oppenheimer. However, for STEAM English courses, the creator of the atomic bomb is just one of many possible subjects.

Dr. Rebecca HarrisonDr. Rebecca Harrison, founder and director of the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) program at the University of West Georgia, was first asked to design English 1101 and 1102 classes that would polarize the sciences through a humanities perspective in order to gain more student interest as well as better performance data and better drop/fail/withdraw (D/F/W) rates.

The program aims to decrease STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) majors’ anxiety in the humanities by connecting the subjects better through STEM subject matter, teaching rhetorical modes that are relevant to STEM majors and building a faculty community.

“Part of our goals are to bridge that perceived discipline gap between the humanities and the sciences,” said Harrison. “Oftentimes, students come in and the first sentence out of their mouths is, ‘I get a 100 on every science test, but if I had a dollar for every C I got in English.’”

The STEAM instructors can pick their own interests and build their classes around them, combining the English things— critical thinking, different writing, collegiate level writing classes— with content that’s more culturally about the sciences.

“It’s great because it gives students an anchor in the content,” said Harrison. “They’re more apt to read, and they’re more apt to be at class.”

While there are acts in place to try to foster better STEM education, Harrison said the gains have not been at pace and they’ve not produced enough STEM ready majors. She, along with many other STEM to STEAM advocates, believes that this is because the program is not holistic.

“By not including humanities, it’s not integrating the whole brain,” said Harrison. “It’s not integrating the whole individual, and we need to do that because it’s not just about what you can develop; it’s about how you utilize it.”

The utilization of the STEAM program means that the brain is fully unified with logic and reason working together with creativity and design. For Harrison, this means that STEM majors are being better prepared for real-world problems.

“I think it makes it richer and more complex,” shared Harrison. “It produces students who are able to see more globally and think more complexly about global problems that need that kind of cache brought to the table to solve.”

The program is already seeing benefits, from extremely low D/W/F rates to significantly high academic success rates. While working to sustain these numbers, Harrison’s next big goal for the STEAM program is to branch out and offer additional types of classes in the humanities for STEM majors.

However, the program was funded by grants for a three year cycle, and that cycle is coming to a close after the 2017-2018 academic school year. Because UWG may have different priorities, it’s uncertain as to whether or not the program will receive permanent funding to stay.

Despite the possible outcome, Harrison remains hopeful and optimistic.

“This is a transitional year for us in that we have a vision, but we also have to see if there is funding to support that vision,” Harrison confided. “I like to see these things as opportunities to grow; that’s just sort of the politics of an institution initiative.”

Posted on September 7, 2017